Over the 3-day President’s Day Weekend I ventured off to 2/3 Baltic States. I spent just shy of 24 hours in Riga, Latvia, and shy of 18 hours in Vilnius Lithuania. I knew next to nothing about the Baltic states or any of its cities and cultures and was quite excited I managed to get there as I learned quite a bit in the whirlwind of a time I spent there.
Over all I really enjoyed this weekend in a very snowy region of Eastern Europe. Both cities were affordable for an EU country, extremely easy to get around, friendly and welcoming locals who spoke English, beautiful historic city centers and a dark contemporary history that has shaped the three nations to this day. Personally I liked Riga a little more than Vilnius. There is a tad more to do in Riga and personally found the old town to be prettier and more exciting to explore. But that doesnt mean skip out on Vilnius! And I will one day be returning to the region to explore Tallinn, Estonia which is said to be straight out of a fairytale.
Riga hosts the main airport and is home to Air Baltic which is the airline for all three countries. Other major carriers as well as low cost carriers such as Ryanair and Wizz Air operate many flights from Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn to various EU gateway cities. Regardless, getting to these countries requires at least one flight transfer or train transfer, or you could even drive or hop on a ferry from say Stockholm if you wanted.
From Riga International Airport you can hop on a cab to get to the center of old town (NOTE: many streets of Old Town dont have car access, so your cab may drop you off on the edges, but the entire city is walkable so no worries) which would cost around 15-20Euro, or you can take Bus 22 or 222 which takes you right to the edges of Old Town for 2 Euros (when paid to the drive in exact change). Takes around 15-20 minutes.
From Vilnius International Airport, it was about a 10-15 Euro taxi ride to old town center. I believe you can also take the train to the main train station which is a short walk to the old town center. Takes around 15 minutes.
Once you arrive at your accommodation in each city’s old town, you can walk to every site and restaurant. The longest walk I did was about 20 minutes from my hostel in Riga to the Art Nouveau district of Riga (outside of old town).
In Riga I booked myself a private room with shared bathroom (USD$44) at the Naughty Squirrel Hostel, which I highly recommend as it is well-located, has 24-hour friendly, engaging and knowledgeable staff, exceptionally clean facilities and hosts a lot of fun events such as a Riga Pub Crawl (for 8Euro and comes with 4 shots and a beer, so do it!). In Vilnius I opted the other route and checked into the Kempinski Hotel Cathedral Square in a standard double (USD$237), an excellent property in the heart of old-town Vilnius.
Day 1: Riga
- Arrived in Riga International Airport around 2PM, hopped on a 18 Euro taxi for the 15 minutes drive to Old Town. Got off and walked a couple meters to the Naughty Squirrel Hostel.
- Settled into the hostel and got some recommendations on top of my own research from the hostel staff.
- Walked towards Freedom Monument, a monument dedicated to the Latvians who lost their lives in the fight for independence between 1918 and 1920, this year actually marks the centennial of the independence of Baltic States in 1918.
- From there I walked to the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (not the offshoot site by the old town square). I spent about an hour here reading up and watching footage/ documentaries about the Occupation of not just Latvia but of the three Baltic nations by the Soviets, Nazis then Soviets again. It is definitely worth checking out, and entry is free or per your own donation. But the history of the Baltic states was very much unknown to me so I thought it was worthwhile to learn a bit more about the roles these nations played in the 20th century. And how the 20th century shaped them just as it did many of its more famous Eastern European neighbors.
- Another 10 minute walk from the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia brings you to the Art Nouveau district of Riga. The two main streets of Srelnieku Iela and Alberta Iela, are beautifully lined with Art Nouveau buildings (though this style of architecture is not limited to these streets, its all over town with a touch of traditional Latvian folk architecture too). I stepped into and paid the 5 Euro (2 Euro more to take pictures with a camera) entry for the Riga Art Nouveau Museum. Worth a visit with a great documentary on Latvian architects and the Art Nouveau movement as well as Latvian vernacular architecture being woven into the Art Nouveau movement. The second floor features an Art Nouveau apartment from that era with original furnishings. If you really love Art Nouveau designs and artifacts, check out the nearby store Art Nouveau Riga Jugendstila.
- A short 10 minute walk, and I arrive at the Radisson Blu Latvia Conference Hotel to head up to the Skyline Bar for a drink but mainly for the panoramic views of Riga. Tried some Balsam, the national Latvian herbal liquor as well as a Balsam martini cocktail. Stayed just past sunset and watched Old Town Riga light up into the night on a snowy foggy day, but nonetheless the views were great!
- Just a block away from the hotel is one of main outposts of a popular local canteen chain called Lido, I stopped by here for a first dinner. The restaurant operates cafeteria buffet style, where you pick and choose what you want to eat and drink and pay at the register at the end of the line. My tray filled up with Pork rib with sauerkraut and roasted potatoes, green pea soup, mint cucumber yogurt drink, beer, and the national dish: pelēkie zirņi ar speķi black peas with onion and bacon. Latvian food is hearty, starchy, pork/ meat and root based so it is warm and filling, perfect for a snowy day.
- I then decided to walk off a bit of the food by wandering about Old Town. I stumbled upon Riga Black Magic, a chocolate/confections store with a speakeasy-esque back dining room. Here I bought some Balsam filled chocolates as gifts.
- I passed by the House of Blackheads, St. Peter’s Church (during the daytime you can pay to head up the tower for windy city views) and the Riga Cathedral.
- Per my hostel’s recommendation I swung by Folkklubs ALA Pagrabs for some drinks and snacks. This is a massive and popular underground pub and restaurant. I tried Latvian sparkling wine, aptly named Riga, local honey beer, Latvian Garlic Bread (which is one of the best garlic breads I’ve ever had, garlicy but not oily or overly buttery), and some fried beer dough for dessert.
- After two meals, I decided to walk back to the hostel, take a quick nap before joining the hostel-organized Riga Pub Crawl.
- Naughty Squirrel Hostel arranges lots of activities and events you can pay and sign up for, including bobsledding with Latvian Olympians! For 8 euros, you get 4 shots at the hostel, 1 beer at the first bar, stops at 2 more bars and a final stop at a club. It is worth it and quite fun and a great way to meet people and to experience Riga’s famous night life that attracts hoards of Stag parties from the UK, thanks to Ryan Air’s influx of cheap flights. We stopped at Riga Old Town Pub, Tim Mints bar, Greenwood Bar, and Puces Klubs Nakti nightclub. My favorite was the Riga Old Town Pub (located below the Riga Old Town Hostel).
- With only a few hours of sleep from 2 flights, I stayed to check out the last stop before quickly proceeding back to the hostel to crash and get some shut eye.
Day 2: Riga and Vilnius
- Woke up just at sunrise at around 7:15AM, got ready and headed out into the cold winter morning of Riga, with workers still clearing the snowfall from the night before, and me still a bit hungover.
- Walked a short 5 minutes across the river to the Riga Central Market, Europe’s largest indoor market housed in former Blip Hangars from WWII. The market itself is not dense nor packed, but just occupies a massive amount of space. Each of the 4 hangars house different areas, a produce, meat, goods and seafood. For breakfast I stopped by a corner stand in the seafood section for some smoked fish on toast and coffee. Latvia is like many Northern European nations, known for smoked fish. It was nice to sit here and have my breakfast and watch as every vendor swung by to get their breakfast from the same stall as well!
- From there I walked along the Daugave River back towards old town center to meander the streets of Old Town Riga in the early morning light as the sun finished rising. I walked by many of the same sites as the prior night to catch them all in the daylight, and realized just how beautiful Old Town Riga is in this dawn lighting, it was magical in the snow and with barely anyone else around.
- After my breakfast and morning stroll I returned to the hostel, packed my bags and headed out to board Bus #222 or #22, 2 Euros paid to the driver, for a 20 minutes bus ride to the airport.
- Arrived at Riga International Airport for my noon departure to Vilnius, Lithuania on Air Baltic.
- 1PM arrival in Vilnius International Airport, from there I hopped into a 10 Euro 20 minute taxi ride to the Kempinski Hotel Cathedral Square in Old Town Vilnius.
- After a wonderful check-in at the hotel, I was off on my adventure. I had hoped to head up to the Gediminas Castle Tower hill to get a panorama of the city but the hotel receptionist was kind enough to inform me that the hill was closed for restoration but that next door was another hill, Three Crosses Hill that offers just as brilliant of a panorama, so thats where I ended up later on.
- From the hotel I walked along Gedimino Street, one of the city’s main and larger streets towards the Museum of Genocide Victims. This museum is housed in a historic building that was turned into KGB headquarters in occupied Lithuania. It houses similar exhibits to Riga’s Museum of Occupation but focuses more on Lithuania and has areas dedicated to the KGB and Soviet Union. The part that was most worth a visit though, is the basement. The basement was used as a Soviet prison and it is here you get a glimpse into the Soviet Union’s tactics and treatment of prisoners. The prison is well-preserved. Highly recommend this place to understand and get some perspective, though not all, of Lithuania and the Baltic States’ history. 5 euro entry plus 2 Euro for photography.
- After spending about an hour and a half in the museum I ventured back down Gedimino street and stopped by Pinavija Cafe & Bakery for some Kibinai, a Lithuanian pastry filled with meat and veggies, coffee and a Napoleon cake.
- I then swing by the Vilnius Cathedral, before venturing up Three Crosses Hill. NOTE: google maps may take you on a shortcut from the Cathedral by ways of a back path, but it is unpaved and slippery when covered in snow, so best to go around and take the official path, which in the end took about the same amount of time!
- Arrived at the top of the hill and the Three Crosses Monument, this was the site where around the 14th Century, fourteen Franciscan friars were beheaded after they were invited to Lithuania and then proceeded to preach the gospel and badmouth pagan Gods. Then took in the stunning views of Vilnius.
- On my hike down I spotted across the river, the Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sport, from the Soviet era, and currently abandoned.
- I then wandered into Old Town and walked down both the main street of Pilies Street towards the City Hall and Stikliu Street off the side of city hall thats filled with local boutique shops and restaurants/bars.
- I then stopped by Leiciai Bar to sample some Lithuanian beers brewed in house, whats cool about this micro-brewery is their house brew is on tap at every single table! Just order and pour right at where you sit!
- I walked back up Pilies Street to have local Lithuanian fare for dinner at Forto Dvaras, a restaurant popular with locals and tourists alike where wait staff dressed in traditional outfits serve traditional local foods in a rustic vernacular environment including a nice underground space. I ordered some Beetroot soup, rye bread, cranberry soda, a fermented rye bread beverage, Bacon potato pancakes, Traditional Tree Cake, and of course the Lithuanian national dish: Cepelinai (Zeppelins), raw and cooked potato filled with meat. Like Latvian food, Lithuanian cuisine is based heavily on root vegetables and meat and is hearty and keeps you real warm.
- After a very filling dinner I return to the hotel to do some R&R at the pool/hot tub/ sauna and steam room.
- Topped off the trip with beverages at the hotel bar, where the wonderful and hospitable bar staff took my on a journey through Lithuanian liquor and drinking customs. I sampled a variety of Krupnik/Viryta: honey-based Lithuanian liquors, some more infused with more herbs than others. The first kind I tried was very sweet but paired well with Lithuanian cheese, the second was the 50 proof traditional kind where I was instructed to take a shot and chase it with rye bread, the lingering combo of rye bread with aged honey-liquor was incredible. The final cup was of the herbal kind and it tasted more like an absinthe.
- Proceeded to get a few hours of shut eye before an early morning departure from Lithuania.
- Took a 15 Euro cab to Vilnius Airport at 4:30AM, Kempinski was kind enough to pack me a breakfast box in lieu of my included breakfast buffet they I would miss.
- Boarded my 6AM flight to Riga with onwards connection to Munich where I would fly nonstop back to the United States.
The Baltic States were never really on my travel radar. Honestly I chose to visit these places this weekend because Air Baltic flies the C-Series, a type of plane I have never flown but is supposed to be quite incredible (it was). But I’m glad I visited. It was the first time I had visited any museum that had the amount of Soviet relics as these ones did (albeit limited quantities). But it was also insightful to learn about the histories and culture of some nations that fall under the radar of most travelers and histories that are taught or learned. Like I said above, I did over all enjoy Riga a bit more as it does seem to offer more but both were great and beautiful especially in the snow, despite the frigid temperatures.